(By John Joseph*)
Shame is a universal experience. All of us can recall some moment of deep embarrassment, whether it's the feeling of not getting picked for the team (or being picked last); not getting the promotion we deserved; being caught doing something we shouldn’t do, such as lying or stealing; or something worse. These are the moments that, when recalled even years later, bring a blush to the face.
For most people, shame is a passing emotion. For many of us who’ve survived childhood sexual abuse, however, shame can become a constant state of inner existence. Feeling dirty, unwanted, unloved, and unneeded has left us with a ubiquitous sense that we are flawed internally—a rag to wipe up a mess and nothing more. That kind of shame is something far beyond simple guilt. It's chronic and untenable.
But what can we do about it?
The first thing that has helped me is to realize the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is a momentary, passing feeling that tells us we did something wrong. In that sense, guilt is a built-in guidance system that helps us to become better human beings. We do something wrong, guilt helps us to realize it; we ask forgiveness of the person wronged (even ourselves), and we move on. Guilt ends. But chronic shame is about who we are, not what we did. Guilt says, "I did wrong;" shame shouts, "I am wrong."
The second thing that has helped me recover from chronic shame is to recognize I have built too much of my identity around that feeling. I have become the shamed person I think I am. Instead of choosing healthy self-love I need to live, too often I’ve lived out the false script of shame that tells me I am a mistake, after all, and the world doesn’t need me.
Each day I must choose self-love over shame.
(*John Joseph is a pseudonym of a pastor. He's a regular contributor to this blog.)